John Dowland was a prominent figure in the late Renaissance
period both as a composer and as one of the foremost performers on the lute. He
personified the melancholy that was so much in vogue in Elizabethan England, eventually
composing the self-deprecatingly titled piece "Sempre Dowland, sempre dolens" ("Always Dowland, always doleful").
Though he was aware of the musical trends in Continental Europe and at times
employed them, his output was dominated by the lute ayre,
a form peculiar to England and more or less codified with the publication of
his First Book of Songs in London in
1597. An influential collection of lute music, it was constructed in such a
manner that allowed performance by a soloist with lute accompaniment or by
various combinations of singers and instrumentalists. Two other books of songs
followed, as wells as his Lachrymae
in 1604 and A Pilgrimes Solace in
1612, generally regarded as his best work.
Little is known of Dowland's early life. His date of birth
is unknown though it is generally believed he was born in London. It is known,
however, that by 1580 Dowland left his homeland for the European continent,
settling in Paris and working in the service of Sir Henry Cobham, ambassador to
the French court. During his time in the French capital, he converted to
Catholicism, which he would later cite as the reason he was not offered a
position at Elizabeth I's Protestant court after he returned to his homeland in
1584. However, this was unlikely the case since other prominent Catholic
musicians, for instance William Byrd, were not hindered in securing court
positions in England.
Beginning in 1598, Dowland served in the court of Christian
IV of Denmark, a music enthusiast that paid him a substantial salary. Dowland,
on the other hand, was less than the ideal servant. He often stayed longer than
was permitted in England for various reasons and in 1606 was finally dismissed
on grounds of unsatisfactory conduct. Following his dismal, he entered the
service of Lord Howard de Walden until he was appointed as one of James I's
lutenists in 1612. Dowland's date of birth is also unknown, though his was
buried at St. Ann's, Blackfriars, London, on February 20, 1626.
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